Opting out

Some who can afford to stop working for money are choosing to get off the executive fast track early

October 12, 2005|By BARBARA ROSE | BARBARA ROSE,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

On an ordinary workday, a father mowed his lawn with his sons. A mother belted out Billy Joel tunes on a grand piano. Another mother attended her children's sporting events.

All of them were top executives who walked away from high-paying jobs at an age when many are just getting going - in their mid- to late 40s - to make new lives that suit them better.

Members of a privileged minority, who can afford to stop working for pay, say their motivations for jumping off the fast track are as varied as their personalities. They are part of a broader trend in American life where more workers are questioning how they spend their time and the tradeoffs associated with demanding careers, workplace experts say.

"Many people have reached a point where going to work for a paycheck is not really cutting it anymore," said Anita Sharpe, co-founding editor of Worthwhile, an Atlanta-based magazine about meaningful work. Executives who opt out are a special case. More often than not, they are high achievers who want to make more money or score more success. Only a handful walk away.

"Some have made more money than they expected," said Julie Daum, leader of Spencer Stuart's North American board services practice. "Some have been merged out of a job. Some have been as successful as they could have imagined and feel it's time to move to the next phase."

A healthy stock market and brisk merger activity are providing options. In July, Pamela Strobel, 52, Exelon Corp.'s executive vice president and chief administrative officer, announced that she would take advantage of a severance package for executives who choose to leave this fall when the utility merges with New Jersey's Public Service Enterprise Group Inc.

"Had it not been for [the merger] I might have just kept going and not gone through any self-examination," Strobel said. "The package was sort of the knock in the head, `Why would you be working this hard going forward?' I don't need to earn more money, I don't need to prove anything more."

Her choice is more common among women.

"They are more attuned to thinking about their life in phases rather than completely around work," Daum said.

But men also are opting out.

In February, Eric Lane, 44, the No. 2 executive at the Men's Wearhouse Inc. retail chain, announced his retirement, effective in July.

"You just look at it and say, `How much more do you need?'" said Lane, who was mowing the lawn with his two sons on a recent morning - a chore he paid someone to do in his former executive life.

His decision to quit a 20-year retail career and move from the San Francisco Bay area to Eagle, Idaho, near Boise, was based on his desire to stop traveling and be home with his family. He and his wife, Marcia, had planned their move for several years.

"He's much calmer," Marcia Lane said. "When he was 30 years old, he was a maniac, very career-driven. He was just very eager to succeed. Then he got there and he said, `It isn't really what I thought it was going to be. There are so many other things I want to do.'"

A self-described "frustrated jock" who coached his sons' sports teams, the former president and chief operating officer signed up as defensive line coach for Eagle High School's football team. He consults with Men's Wearhouse and plans on doing some real estate investing.

Sometimes a career setback prompts re-evaluation.

Betty Beaty, 49, rose through the ranks at Honeywell Inc. before moving to Michigan in 1999 to join Whirlpool Corp. as corporate vice president and controller. Three years later, the company hired an outside executive to be chief financial officer rather than promoting her.

"[That] allowed me to say, `What do I want to do next?'" she recalled. "I decided I'd have more challenge and growth doing something totally different, which is staying home with my three kids."

Among the many activities she no longer forgoes are reading novels, studying genealogy, attending Bible study and her children's sporting events. She and her husband cook dinner on alternate nights. He retired during one of their many moves for her career.

"You're doing all new things that you didn't do for 25 years," Beaty said. "Most people think that being a stay-at-home mom would be boring. I don't find it that way at all."

But not all executives find the transition easy.

Cheryl Francis, 51, had every intention of going back to work as a chief financial officer when she quit her CFO post at R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co. in 2000.

"As much as I love my kids and love having more time with them, that was not the driver," said the mother of two sons, one in high school, the other in college.

When she quit Donnelley, she was at the top of her game as a financial executive, but she felt mentally and physically drained.

"It was very hard," she said. "I've always been this goal-driven person. I let go of everything and decided to take it one step at a time and see where it would lead. It led to some pretty interesting things."

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